With the state supreme court soon to consider whether Ohio has lived up to an order to revamp its school funding system, state leaders have turned their attention to fixing aging and rundown public schools.
Last week, Gov. Bob Taft submitted to the high court his plan, originally unveiled Sept. 9, for spending $10.2 billion over 12 years for school construction.
The proposal has drawn guarded praise in the legislature, as well as from educators who have long criticized the state for neglecting school facilities. A 1996 survey by the U.S. General Accounting Office said Ohio students were more likely to attend unsafe or inadequate schools than those in any other state.
In outlining his proposal, the Republican governor said he had visited schools in Ohio that were in worse condition than some he visited as a Peace Corps volunteer in East Africa 30 years ago.
“I’ve seen firsthand the conditions some children must endure to get an education,” Mr. Taft said. “This plan is a blueprint and a commitment for getting the job done in every district for every child based on an actual revenue stream over a manageable timetable.”
The money to repair or rebuild the schools would come through a combination of regular capital expenditures, interest earnings, and a portion of the state’s share of a multistate settlement with the tobacco industry. Money would be distributed to districts according to need, provided that they were able to raise matching funds worth anywhere from 10 percent to 90 percent of total project costs, depending on their property wealth.
Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Ben Espy, have praised the governor’s plan. “Republicans waved a white flag this morning and made an effort to stop fighting and instead take action on the deplorable condition of Ohio schools,” Mr. Espy said after the governor’s announcement. “This is a major initial step toward resolving a permanent solution to the problem.”
Still, some observers wondered whether the timing of Gov. Taft’s announcement would help or harm the state’s case in its 8-year-old court battle over school funding. The Ohio Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Nov. 16 over whether recent changes to the education funding system meet the terms of a 1997 high court ruling that declared the old system unconstitutional.
William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, contends that the governor’s recent proposal is an attempt to appease the high court. He noted that the indictment of the state’s school facilities in Mr. Taft’s proposal stands in stark contrast to a recently filed legal brief in which Attorney General Betty Montgomery asserts that lawmakers have already done enough to fix school buildings.
Over the past four years, roughly 100 of the state’s 611 districts have benefited from the state’s annual $300 million appropriation for capital improvements.
Concerns Over Timing
“The state knows they don’t have a case, so they scrambled around to try to put something together to catch the eye of the court,” said Mr. Phillis, whose group represents about 500 districts in the lawsuit. “Hopefully, the court will notice the discrepancy between what the state said in its brief and this policy proposal.”
Gov. Taft presented his facilities proposal to the court through a friend-of-the-court brief. He “hopes the court takes into consideration everything the state has done on every front,” said Scott Millburn, a spokesman for the governor.
Some critics have complained that districts with pressing needs would have to wait too long for aid under the governor’s 12-year plan. Others worry that the scope of the proposal would overwhelm the state’s construction industry and limit its capacity to complete projects.
“Some people say the time frame is too long; other people say it’s too short,” Mr. Millburn said. “That probably means it’s just right.”
Lawmakers are expected to consider Mr. Taft’s proposal when they return from their summer recess next month.